PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – A Cambodian appeals court Wednesday ordered the release of 13 women who had been sentenced to 2½ years in prison for protesting their eviction from their homes without adequate compensation, in a case that was widely seen as an example of injustice.
The women cheered in the courtroom, their supporters applauded and observers from foreign embassies, including the United States, smiled in the audience after the judge's ruling. Local and foreign human rights groups hailed the women's freedom, but said the court also should have overturned their guilty verdicts.
"Finally, justice has been done for us," defendant Heng Mom said tearfully. "From now on I can see my children and live with them."
The women had lived in Phnom Penh's Boueng Kak lake area, which the government awarded to a Chinese company for commercial development, including a hotel, office buildings and luxury housing. Residents complained that they were not given the new land titles they had been promised by the government.
Their joy Wednesday was marred by a clash outside the court between police and the women's supporters, a reminder of the evictees' prolonged struggle against a government with little tolerance for dissent.
About 200 human rights activists and relatives of the women tried to gather near the court to demonstrate their support, but clashed with about 300 police and military police who were deployed to block them. Human rights groups said at least a dozen people were hurt.
Judge Seng Sivutha upheld the convictions of the women for aggravated rebellion and illegal occupation of land, for which each had been sentenced to 2½ years. They had been arrested when they symbolically tried to rebuild their homes on land where their old houses had been demolished by developers in 2010.
The judge reduced their sentences to time served of one month and three days and freed them because he said they had children to take care of and had little knowledge of the law. He also said that testimony indicated that they did not resist arrest. They were to be freed later Wednesday after being processed out of prison.
Concern has risen in Cambodia over land grabbing, which sometimes involves corruption and the use of deadly force in carrying out evictions.
The human rights group Amnesty International said the appeals court "should have overturned the women's convictions, not simply suspended the remainder of their sentences and allowed the convictions to stand." The group earlier said the original trial was unfair because lawyers were not given sufficient time to prepare and not given access to evidence or witnesses.
A statement issued jointly by 13 Cambodian rights organizations also welcomed the women's release while regretting that their convictions were upheld.